Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 10: The Villains Who Don't Do Anything

We're almost at the end of Kvothe's Tarbean adventures, having skipped over a lot of filler in order to save time (as I've already mentioned, this part of the book contains three, fairly lengthy myths, in their entirety). But before we see how Kvothe gets his arcanist groove back and escapes to the university, I want to spend some time reiterating just how ridiculously Gritty this whole sequence is.

For the most part, Kvothe's world is what you might term "cozy fantasy". The University and its surrounding environs, where he spends the vast majority of the currently-published story, is at a roughly nineteenth-century (upper class) level of technology and comfort due to the advanced magic that's prevalent there. Despite Kvothe's frequent insistence that he's poor, his University days are spent like those of most working-class college students all over the world: living frugally but comfortably, working in his spare time to save up for tuition and making ends meet from month to month. He only has a few shirts and he can't go out for nice meals with his wealthier friends, but he's never faced with the prospect of truly going hungry or lacking a roof over his head.

Later, he schmoozes it up in the halls of the nobility and the politically powerful, indulging himself with the fine food and drink he normally can't afford. Even when he's camping for days on end in a massive forest, it's the very nice sort of camping where you never have to read descriptions of the characters struggling to shit in the woods, and the whole thing would have seemed like a fun holiday if didn't end with Kvothe and some buddies raiding a bandit camp. Then they go to a comfy roadside inn that has all the comforts of home, then Kvothe spends some time in fairyland which...we'll discuss when we get to it, and then he goes to a hidden ninja mercenary country that's supposedly desperately poor but comes off more like a yuppy retreat for rich people who want to spend a weekend eating kale and doing yoga outside.

My point here is that, usually, Kvothe's world is very fluffy and nice and cozy. And then there's Tarbean, which is a ridiculous grimdark hive of scum and villainy that seems to be actively terrorizing our poor protagonist. Kvothe gets absolutely put through the wringer in these chapters: beaten into near-unconsciousness (or total unconsciousness) so many times I lost count, shunned and spat on, harassed by petty thieves and criminals who'd happily gut him for a ball of twine...there's even a (remarkably throw-away) bit that heavily implies Kvothe was repeatedly chased down and raped by older street urchins; this just gets dropped into the narration and then only comes up again, once, much later.

It's not like this is the only time the books ever deal with these topics. An extended sequence near the end of The Wise Man's Fear is all about rape, but even this feels more like a power fantasy where Kvothe gets to go all Liam Neeson on the bad guys. Compared to all of this, Tarbean feels like it exists in a parallel universe, or was plucked from some other fantasy story that was trying to ape Joe Abercromby or George RR Martin.

But anyway, eventually he does get out. Last time, we left off with Kvothe hearing a story from an old man named Skarpi, which purported to be an origin story for Haliax, leader of the Chandrian. You would think that hearing a tale that discussed the man who killed his family--by name--would illicit an immediate reaction in Kvothe, but no.

It is easy for you to see, no doubt, hearing the story like this, conveniently arranged and narrated. Keep in mind that I had been living like an animal in Tarbean for nearly three years. Pieces of my mind were still asleep, and my painful memories had been gathering dust behind the door of forgetfulness.

This business with Kvothe's mind "sleeping" gets brought up often, usually to explain why the Tarbean sequence goes on for as long as it does, but here the implication seems to be that Kvothe gave himself selective amnesia in order to avoid processing what happened to his parents.

(You could actually explain this by invoking Kvothe's arcanist mental gymnastics, but if that's what the book is going for then it never explicitly states it)

Eventually, Kvothe remembers who Haliax is and scurries off for another story session with Skarpi and the orphans he entertains on a regular basis. This story picks up immediately following the last one: Haliax has turned evil and sworn to destroy the world because he's sad his wife died, so Selitos--the king who Haliax once fought for, and who cursed him to be permanently in shadow--recruits a merry band of heroes to oppose him and his Chandrian.

Others came forward. Tall Kirel, who had been burned but left living in the ash of Myr Tariniel. Deah, who had lost two husbands to the fighting, and whose face and mouth and heart were hard and cold as stone. Enlas, who would not carry a sword or eat the flesh of animals, and who no man had ever known to speak hard words. Fair Geisa, who had a hundred suitors in Belen before the walls fell. The first woman to know the unasked-for touch of man. [blurgh — Ronan]

Lecelte, who laughed easily and often, even when there was woe thick about him. Imet, hardly more than a boy, who never sang and killed swiftly without tears. Ordal, the youngest of them all, who had never seen a thing die, stood bravely before Aleph, her golden hair bright with ribbon. And beside her came Andan, whose face was a mask with burning eyes, whose name meant anger.

I wanted to quote this whole section because this is seriously the most anime group of warriors I've ever seen in a fantasy series--they've got a guy covered in burn scars, an emotionless murderer boy, a dude who won't use swords, and even a little girl who is improbably good at fighting for no clear reason. Then at the end of the story they all get angel wings so they can fly around (seriously).

Selitos names his followers the Amyr--that's right, the same people Haliax was afraid of back when he and the Chandrian showed up. The story gets Skarpi into hot water, as it contains a clear mythological predecessor of the god Tehlu, in the form of one of the Amyr. Some theological enforcers show up to drag Skarpi away, and that's the last we'll see of him.

So, I have a question about all of this: are these stories meant to be true?

The nature and themes of the trilogy would seem to suggest that no, they must be fanciful versions of more mundane events. But Haliax looks exactly the way he's described by Skarpi, he has the correct name and all the powers ascribed to him, and he mentions the Amyr as something that he clearly believes to be real. And Skarpi--who the book vaguely portrays as knowing more about this stuff than he should--tells Kvothe flat out that the stories are factually accurate.

If this really is the origin of Haliax and the Chandrian, then dumping it all out here seems really abrupt and disappointing, especially since none of it actually comes up all that much going forward. But if it's not, then that means there's another story the books have been completely failing to address all of this time.

Kvothe is disappointed that he arrived too early to hear "the information he wanted", which begs the question: what information does he want? The Chandrian's origin? If so, he seems to have gotten the full picture. How to defeat them? His narration says that at this point he had no intention of trying to track them down, considering it tantamount to suicide. So what is he hoping to get out of this? What does he actually want to accomplish?

That never really becomes any clearer. Kvothe just floats along like a jellyfish, making occasional, half-hearted attempts to get information about his enemies. It's never really spelled out what he would even do with such information if he found it. 

Also, while we're on the subject: if the Chandrian kill people who tell stories about them, shouldn't they have come for Skarpi? Does the fact that they didn't mean that his stories aren't accurate? Do you have to tell stories to a sufficiently large audience before they'll notice? Kvothe's father only told a very small part of his story to the rest of his troupe, once, but that was enough to get them all murdered.

Actually, now that I think about it, shouldn't they come for Kvothe? He's already heard more stories about them than anyone else we know of, and he literally saw them. Wouldn't he be number one on their hit-list?

(Much later, there's a brief, really vague hint that Kvothe possibly maybe has some sort of unknown connection to the Amyr, so maybe they put some sort of protection spell on him off-screen at some point)

This all goes to illustrate a point that I wouldn't have thought needs illustrating: when your hero has no motivation and doesn't do anything, and your villains also have no motivations and don't do anything, your story will feel lifeless and dull.